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Parshah Behaalotecha: Moses and the Challenge of Adaptive Leadership

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It is precisely because Moses understands this that he is so devastated when he sees that the people haven’t changed at all. They are still complaining about the food, almost exactly as they did before the revelation at Mount Sinai, before their covenant with God, before they themselves had built the sanctuary, their first collective creative endeavor.

He has to teach them to adapt, but he senses – rightly as it transpires – that they are simply unable to change their pattern of response, the result of years of slavery. They are passive, dependent. They have lost the capacity for self-motivated action. As we eventually discover, it will take a new generation, born in freedom, to develop the strengths needed for self-governance, the precondition of freedom.

Adaptive leadership is intensely difficult. People resist change. They erect barriers against it. One is denial. A second is anger. A third is blame. That is why adaptive leadership is emotionally draining in the extreme. Many of the great adaptive leaders – among them Lincoln, Gandhi, John F. and Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Anwar Sadat and Yitzhak Rabin – were assassinated. Their greatness was posthumous. Only in retrospect were they seen by their own people as heroes. At the time, they were seen by many as a threat to the status quo, to all that is comfortingly familiar.

Moses, with the greatest prophet’s insight, intuitively sees all this. Hence his despair and wish to die. It is far easier to be a technical leader than an adaptive one. It is easy to leave it to God, hard to realize that God is calling us to responsibility, to become His partners in the work of redemption.

Of course, the Torah does not leave it there. In Judaism, despair never has the last word. God comforts Moses, tells him to recruit seventy elders to share the burden of leadership with him, and gives him the strength to carry on. Adaptive leadership is, for Judaism, the highest form of leadership. That is what the prophets did. Without relieving the people of their responsibility, they gave them a vision and a hope. They spoke difficult, challenging truths, and they did so with a passion that still has the power to inspire the better angels of our nature.

But with devastating honesty – never more so than in its account of Moses’s temporary breakdown – the Torah tells us that adaptive leadership is not easy, and that those who exercise it will face anger and criticism. They may come to feel that they have failed. But they have not. Moses remains the greatest leader the Jewish people has ever known, the man who almost single-handedly shaped the Israelites into a nation that never gave up or gave way to despair.

About the Author: Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, former chief rabbi of the British Commonwealth, is the author of many books of Jewish thought, most recently “The Great Partnership: Science, Religion, and the Search for Meaning.”

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